Rape and Patriarchy

By Hughillustration, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week in Wellington saw two incidents from separate schools in which teenage boys demonstrated their entitlement to make sexually derogatory comments about girls and women on Facebook pages.

Some of those seeking to explain the boys’ behaviour have sought to minimise their culpability by claiming these were boys with good values who must just be joking.

The “can’t you take a joke” refrain features as a key display item in the women’s movement’s museum of feminist backlash memorabilia.

Rape is no joking matter. It is profoundly disturbing that boys in 2017 might consider it still to be so. How do we explain the fact that boys whose entire lives have been lived in what some would term a post-feminist era come to not only hold such views but seek peer esteem through sharing them?

There are many clues to this so-called mystery. The most useful starting point lies in acknowledging the tenacity of the patriarchal footprint on our culture.

We can see it clearly in the extraordinarily high levels of violence against women that persist despite more than 40 years of feminist action and advocacy and more recent state interventions and campaigns.

We can see it in the persistence of the gender pay gap, and the “news” last week that conscious and unconscious bias, a.k.a sexism, is the most likely explanation for its endurance.

We can see it in the objectification and sexualisation of women’s bodies, not only in its recently criticised pornographic forms but in women’s magazines, advertising, music videos and  myriad contexts that signal to girls growing up that success depends on looking ever-beautiful, ever-young.

We can also see it in the messages our boys receive through their Kiwi heroes – be tough, be strong, play hard, just don’t get caught.

The most fundamental element of patriarchy, enduring through the centuries, has been the premise of men’s “natural” superiority over women. It is this assumption that enshrined gender inequality within our laws, religions, education system, and other social institutions, as well as within our domestic relationships.

Women and children existed as the chattels of men, under male control and with various systems of exchange enabling their transfer to other male ownership. Should another male attempt through rape to possess a man’s wife, his crime was understood not to be against the woman but against her male owner – she, as the victim, had no right of protest, and her experience was irrelevant.

Men’s ownership of women’s bodies was manifest in multiple ways, resulting in women having no sexual autonomy in marriage until 1985 in New Zealand, when the law finally acknowledged that wives could be victims of rape by their husbands.

With such a legacy, it is little surprise that the incidents of last week occurred. As we discuss ways of responding to them, we need to look beyond such factors as social media, peer pressure, “boys being boys” and so forth, and recognise how deeply embedded the patriarchal legacy remains within our culture.

Only then will we have universal recognition that rape talk and rape behaviour are no joking matter; only then might we be able to embrace a future where there is no rape.

Dr Jan Jordan is Associate Professor in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. She is undertaking a Marsden Research Fund-supported project on rape, silencing and objectification. This piece was first published in the Dominion Post, 13 March 2017.

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